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Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics

Paul de Man

The ideological shrillness of the polemics that surround the advent of

literary theory in our time cannot entirely conceal that these debates,
hotvever ephemeral and ad hominem they may be, are the external
symptom of tensions that originate at the furthest remove from the stage
of public debate. Yet their apparent remoteness from common experience does not make them less pressing. What is at stake in these exchanges is the compatibility between literary experience and literary
theory. There is something bleakly abstract and ugly about literary
theory that cannot be entirely blamed on the perversity of its practitioners. Most of us feel internally divided between the compulsion to
theorize about literature and a much more attractive, spontaneous encounter with literary works. Hence the relief one feels whenever a
method of literary study is proposed that allows for a measure of
This paper is part of a ~vorkin progress on the relationship between rhetorical,
aesthetic, and ideological discourse in the period from Kant to Kierkegaard and Marx. It
tvas prepared for delivery as the Renato Poggiolo Lecture in Comparative Literature
(Harvard Uni~ersity,1980). I ha\e left unchanged the traces it bears of this occasion as well
as the all too hasty presentation of the more technical issues involved especially in the
reading of par. 20 from the Encyclopedln of Ph~losophrralSclrncrs. 1 wish to thank Raymond
Geuss of the University of Chicago department of philosophy for his generous and astute
reading of the manuscript. It has allowed me to correct inaccuracies and to pre\ent unnecessary ambiguities. His cogent objections to my reading of par. 20 o f t h e Encyclofirdia
have helped me to strengthen an argument which 1 hope to have the opportunity to
develop in further discussion.

Inynir\' 8 (Summrt 1982)

1982 by T h e Cni\rrslt\ of Chicago. 0093-1896/82/0804-0004$01,00. A11 rights rcsct\rd



Paul dr 'Man


theoretical rigor and generality (and which is therefore, to speak from

an academic point of view, teachable) while leaving intact, or even enhancing, the aesthetic appreciation or the potential for historical insight
that the work provides. This is the satisfaction with which one encounters the rvork of a master of literary history such as Renato Poggioli or
E.rnst-Robert Curtius or a master of formal and structural analysis such
as Reuben Brower or Roman Jakobson: the rigor of the method
confirms the beauty of its object. But in the craggy field of literary theory
one should not be too easily satisfied \\-ith one's own satisfaction. Prudence is the main virtue of theoretical discipline, and prudence dictates
suspicion when one feels too pleased ~vitha methodological solution.
The alacrity with which one rushes, as by instinct, to the defense of
aesthetic values indicates that the source of one's suspicion should be the
compatibility of the aesthetic dimensions of literature with \\-hatever it is
that its theoretical investigation discloses. If it is indeed the case that a
difficulty exists between the aesthetics and the poetics of literature and
that this difficulty is inherent in the matter itself, then it would be naive
to believe that one can avoid or dodge the task of its precise description.
It is not easy to discover the element, in literature, that can be
suspected of interfering with its aesthetic integrity. T h e urge to conceal
it is inscribed, so to speak, in the situation, and this urge is probably
strong enough to block direct access to the problem. One has to turn,
therefore, to the canonical texts of aesthetic theory that offer the
strongest reasoned defense for the equation of art with aesthetic experience. For reasons that have to do with this particular occasion but hardly
stand in need of' a less personal justification, Hegel's Aesthrtirs offers
perhaps the most arduous challenge to such an enterprise. Nowhere else
does the structure, the history, and the judgment of art seem to come as
close to being- systematically
carried out, and nowhere else does this
systematic synthesis rest so exclusively on one definite category, in the
full Aristotelian sense of the term, called the aesthetic. Under a variety of
names, this category never ceased to be prominent in the development
of Western thought,
- so much so that its being- left nameless until the end
of the eighteenth century is a sign of its over\\-helmingpresence rather
than of its nonexistence. And although the posthumous collection of
Hegel's Le~tureson Aesthetics, suffering as it does from the stylistic in-

Paul de Man, Sterling Professor of' the Humanities at Yale University, is the author of Blin(in~ss(inn Insight and Allegorirs oj'Rending and is
currently completing a book tentatively titled The Resistanre to Tlleorj. His
previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are "Political Allegory in Rousseau" (Summer 1976), "The Epistemology of Metaphor" (Autumn
1978), and "A 1,etter" (Spring 1982).

Crlticnl Inquirj

Summer 1982


felicities of magisterial lecture courses recorded by overloyal disciples, is

not exactly a reader's delight nor even, to judge from bibliographical
evidence, frequently read at all, its influence on our way of thinking
about and teaching literature is still all-pervasive. Whether we know it, or
like it, or not, most of us are Hegelians and quite orthodox ones at that.
We are Hegelian when we reflect on literary history in terms of an
articulation between the Hellenic and the Christian Era or between the
Hebraic and the Hellenic world. We are Hegelian when we try to systematize the relationships between the various art forms or genres according to different modes of representation or when we try to conceive
of historical periodization as a development, progressive or regressive,
of a collective or individual consciousness. Not that such concerns belong
exclusively to Hegel; far from it. But the name "Hegel" stands here for
an all-encompassing vessel in which so many currents have gathered and
been preserved that one is likely to find there almost any idea one knows
to have been gathered from elsewhere or hopes to have invented oneself. Few thinkers have so many disciples who never read a word of their
master's writings.
In the case of the Aesthetics, the persistent power of philosophical
synthesis is concentrated in the work's ability to bring together, under
the common aegis of the aesthetic, a historical causality with a linguistic
structure, an experiential and empirical event in time with a given, nonphenomenal fact of language. In Hegel's well-known and in essence
unchallenged division of the history of art in three phases, two of these
phases are designated by historical terms-the classic and the Romantic
(which in Hegel designates any post-Hellenic, i.e., Christian art)whereas the third period is designated by the term "symbolic," which we
now associate with linguistic structures and which stems not from
historiography but from the practice of law and of statecraft. The theory
of the aesthetic, as a historical as well as a philosophical notion, is predicated, in Hegel, on a theory of art as symbolic. The famous definition of
the beautiful as "the sensory appearance [or manifestation] of the idea
[das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee]" does not only translate the word
"aesthetics" and thus establishes the apparent tautology of aesthetic art
(dze ~chonenK u n ~ t eo r l e ~beaux- art^), but it could itself best be translated by
the statement: the beautiful is symbolic. The symbol is the mediation
between the mind and the physical world of which art manifestly partakes, be it as stone, as color, as sound, or as language. Hegel says so in
no uncertain terms in the section on symbolic art. After having stated
casually that the symbol can be considered a sign (das Symbol ist nun
zunachst ein ~eic'hen),
he goes on to distinguish between the symbolic and
the semiotic function and leaves no doubt as to what side of this dichotomy art is on: "In the case of art, we cannot consider, in the symbol,
the arbitrariness between meaning and signification [which characterizes


Pnul tle ,Wan

he gel'^ Aesthetics

the sign], since art itself consists precisely in the connection, the affinity
and the concrete interpretation of meaning and of form."l Aesthetic
theory and art history are thus the two complementary parts of a single
s)imbolon. Whoever dares, today more than ever, to challenge this article
of faith in any of its numerous guises should not expect to get away with
it unscathed.
Hegel's Aesthetics thus appears to be, traditionally enough, a theory
of symbolic form. Yet a disturbing element of personal inadequacy in
Hegel himself seems to prevent the tradition of the Aesthetics' interpretation from resting content in this assurance. For one thing, next to the
familiar-sounding assertion, which we think we easily enough understand, that art partakes of the beautiful and is therefore a sensory manifestion of the idea, stands, in the same text, Hegel's more disturbing
statement that art is, irrevocably, for us a thing of the past. Would this
then mean that the sensory manifestation of the idea is no longer accessible to us in this form, that we are no longer able to produce truly
symbolic forms of art? And is it not something of an irony of literary
history and a concrete disavowal of Hegel that he declared art to have
ended at the very moment that a new modernity was about to discover
and to refine the power of the symbol beyond anything that Hegel's
somewhat philistine taste could ever have imagined? It must have been a
poor symbolist indeed who thus declared nineteenth-century Romanticism and symbolism stillborn when it was about to write a new chapter in
a history which he proclaimed to be over.
The contemporary interpretation of the Aest/leti~s,even when it
emanates from writers favorably inclined toward Hegel such as Hans
Georg Gadamer, for instance, or Theodor W. Adorno, keeps encountering this difficulty and finds Hegel useless for the understanding of
post-Hegelian art and literature. His theory of art as symbol may have
prefigured some of what was to come, but his lack of sympathy for his
own contemporaries makes him shortsighted and inadequate for the
all-important task of our own self-definition, of understanding our own
modernity. The attitude is well exemplified in the statement of an astute
and sensitive interpreter of nineteenth-century literature who certainly
cannot be reproached for an overhasty dismissal of Hegel. In a volume
entitled Poetics ant1 Philosophy ofHistorj, Peter Szondi (who until his untimely death directed the seminar for comparative literature at the Free
University of Berlin) describes the feeling one cannot help but share
upon coming to the section in the Aesthetics ~vhereHegel discusses the
1. (:. \V. F. Hegel, Clirrkr rn ziilanzig Hundrn (Frankfurt aln Main, 1979). ~ o l .13,
uht'r rlir .Jr,thr,t~kI , p. 395: all further references to this volume. a b b r e ~
iated Ars.
and to \ 01s. 8 and I O (Enzyklopiirfrr rfrr /~hrloropl~ir(/ir~~
It'i\s,,nsrho/tm. 1 <indI l l ) , a b b r e ~
Er1: I ot- I l l , \ \ i l l br included in the text; mv translation,.

Critrcal I n q u i ~

Summpr 1982


actual symbolic forms or genres: metamorphosis, allegory, metaphor,

image, parable, and so om2
The literary scholar who expects to be instructed by Hegel's
aesthetics has up till then had to content himself with philosophical
concepts, mythological representations and archaic architecture.
He expects, at long last, to find what he has been looking for-but a
great disappointment awaits him [Es wartet eine grosse Enttauschung auf ihn]. One will have to say, without further ado, that this is
one of the least inspired sections in the entire work. [P. 3901
From the point of view of contemporary poetics, which certainly
tends more and more to imagery and metaphor as an essential trait
or even as the essence of the poetic, Hegel's considerations on
metaphor and on figuration must seem truly shallow [recht ausserlich]. . . . He does not reach an adequate understanding of metaphor and simile. [P. 3953
When Proust compares a moon which is already visible in daylight
to an actress who has entered the theater well before making her
entree on the stage, and who, not yet made up or dressed, merely
watches her fellow players, then lve may well ask if it is legitimate,
in a case like this, to distinguish between the abstract and the concrete, between meaning and image. The secret meaning of such
comparisons must be sought in the discovery of analogies, of
correspondences-the very corr~spondanc~s
which Baudelaire celebrates in his famous poem. T o the poetic outlook they appear as
the guarantee of the unity of the world. . . . One can certainly not
reproach Hegel for his inability to notice such correspondences
(although they do not appear only in modern poetry), but one
cannot deny that it is his inadequate conception of the essence of
language which is the cause of his failure. [P. 3961
From this point on, we can begin to see the limitations of Hegel's
aesthetics. [P. 3901
- then, is a theoretician of the symbol who fails to respond to
symbolic language. This does not allow us to dismiss his aesthetics entirely, since he was at least on the right track, but it allows us to say that
x%eno longer need him, since we have travelled so much further along
the same road. And it is certainly true that Hegel's theory of the symbolic
seems halfhearted compared to that of contemporaries such as Georg
Friedrich Creuzer (whom he mentions critically), Friedrich Schelling
(whom he does not mention at all in that context), or Friedrich Schlegel
(about whom he never has a kind word to say). Could it be that Hegel is
2. Peter Szondi, Portik ctnrl G('irh~cht\pll~lutuphieI (Frankfurt am Main, 1974); all
further references ill be included in the text; my translations.


Paul de Man


saying something more complex about the symbol and about language
than what we recognize in him as so familiar to us, but that part of what
he has to say is something that we cannot or will not hear because it
upsets what we take for granted, the unassailable value of the aesthetic?
The answer to this question takes us on a circuitous route, first away
from and then back to the Aesthetics, a route on which I only have time to
point out some stations in an itinerary that is not, I am afraid, an entirely
easy walk.
Hegel's assertion that art belongs unreservedly to the order of the
symbolic is made in the context of a distinction between symbol and sign
that in the realm of art does not seem to apply. A great deal hinges on
this distinction which recurs, though not very conspicuously, throughout
the Hegelian corpus, most explicitly in a paragraph of the earlier Encyclopetlia of the Philosophical Sciences of 1817 (the Aesthetics is from 1830). It
occurs in a section where Hegel is concerned with the distinctions between the faculties of the intellect, more specifically, the distinction
betrveen perceiving, imagining (or representing), and thinking
(Anschnuung, Vorstellung, and Denken); the discussion of language is a
subsection of the discussion of representation. Here Hegel offers a
characterization of the sign which stresses the arbitrariness of the relationship between the sensory component necessarily involved in any
signification and the intended meaning. T h e red, white, and green flag
of Italy bears no actual relationship to the color of the country which, as
seen from the air, is predominantly ochre in color; only very naive children are supposed to be cute enough to be amazed that Italy actually
does not have the same uniform color it has in their atlas. The symmetrical obverse of this observation is that of Roland Barthes reflecting on the
naturalization of the signified in his analysis of an advertisement for
spaghetti, in which the white pasta, the red tomatoes, and the green
peppers are so irresistibly effective because they convey, at least to the
non-Italian, the illusion of devouring, of interiorizing the very essence of
ita1ianitl.-and very cheaply at that. As such, in its arbitrariness, the sign,
says Hegel,
differs from the symbol, a perception whose own determination [or
meaning] more or less corresponds, essentially and conceptually, to
the content it expresses as a symbol, whereas, in the case of the sign,
the proper content of the perception [the red, white, and green of
the flag] and the content of which it is a sign [Italy] have nothing to
do with each other [Enz. 111, p. 270, par. 4581.
There is nothing unusual about this characterization of the sign
since the stress on its arbitrariness has numberless antecedents well before Ferdinand de Saussure. Somewhat less common are the value
judgments Hegel derives from his analysis; although it would not be

Critical Inquiry

Summer 1982


correct to say that Hegel valorizes the sign over the symbol, the reverse
would be even less true. "Das Zeichen," says Hegel, "muss fiir etwas
Grosses erklart werden [the sign must be proclaimed to be something
great]." What is it then that is so "great" about the sign? T o the extent
that the sign is entirely independent with regard to the objective, natural
properties of the entity toward which it points and instead posits properties by means of its own powers, the sign illustrates the capacity of the
intellect to "use" the perceived world for its own purposes, to efface
(tzlgen) its properties and to put others in their stead. This activity of the
intellect is both a freedom, since it is arbitrary, and a coercion, since it
does violence, as it were, to the world. The sign does not actz~allysay what
it means to say or, to drop the misleading anthropomorphic metaphor of
a speaking sign endowed with a voice, the predication involved in a sign is
always citational. When I say, "The red, white, and green flag is Italian,"
this predicative sentence is always what in scholastic terminology is called
an actz~ssignatus: it presupposes an implicit subject (or I) which frames
the statement and makes it into a quotation: I say (or I declare, or I
proclaim) that the red, white, and green flag is Italian-a specification
which does not have to occur when, in ordinary conversation, I say, "The
city of Rome and the Apennines are Italian." The sign is so "great," so
crucially important, because it touches upon the question of the relationship between subject and predicate in any declarative sentence. From the
question of the sign we are taken, then, by the logic of the passage itself,
to the question of the subject-a topic on which Hegel has a great deal to
say, perhaps most strikingly of all in a much earlier section of the Encyclopedza.
Paragraph 20 of the Encyclopedza has to do with the definition of
thinking or with the conditions necessary for a science of logic. It states
Hegel's equivalence of the Cartesian cogito by establishing the link between the general predicates of thought and the thinking subject. In
order to understand thought, to think about thought, thought has to be
represented, and this representation can only be that of the thinking
subject: "the simple expression of the existing subject as thinking subject
is I," says Hegel in a passage rich in Fichtean resonances. But this relatively straightforward and traditional, Cartesian, if you wish, or, at any
rate, specular conception of the subject leads at once to less predictable
complications. The thinking subject is to be kept sharply distinguished
from the perceiving subject, in a manner that is reminiscent of (or that
anticipates) the distinction we have just encountered in the differentiation between sign and symbol. Just as the sign refuses to be in the
service of sensory perceptions but uses them instead for its own purposes, thought, unlike perception, appropriates the world and literally
"subjects" it to its own powers. More specifically, thought subsumes the
infinite singularity and individuation of the perceived world under ordering principles that lay claim to generality. The agent of this appro-


Paul de Man

Hegel's Aesthetics

priation is language. "Since language," says Hegel, "is the labor of

thought, we cannot say anything in language that is not generalM-a
sentence rvith which Kierkegaard will take issue, in an ironic mode, in
Fear and Trembling. Thus the sign, random and singular at its first position, turns into symbol just as the I, so singular in its independence from
anything that is not itself, becomes, in the general thought of logic, the
most inclusive, plural, general, and impersonal of subjects.
As such, it is also the most disinterested and self-effacing of subjects.
Certainly, since the validity of thought resides in its generality, we cannot
be interested, in thought, in the private, singular opinions of the thinker
but will expect from him a more humble kind of philosophical selfforgetting. "When Aristotle," says Hegel, "demands [from the philosopher] that he live up to the dignity of his calling, then this dignity consists
of his ability to discard particular opinions . . . and to leave things to be
what they are in their own right" (Enz. I, p. 80, par. 23). When philosophers merely state their opinion, they are not being philosophical.
"Since language states only what is general, I cannot say what is only my
opinion [. . . so kann ich nicht sagen was ich nur meine]." The German
version is indispensable here since the English word "opinion," as in
public opinion (tffentliclze Meinung), does not have the connotation of
"meaning" that is present, to some degree, in the German verb meinen.
In Hegel, the assimilation of "meaning" to "me" (or I) is built into the
system, since the generality of thought is also the appropriation, the
making mine of the world by the I. It is, therefore, not only legitimate
but necessary to hear, in the German word meinen (as in the sentence: Ich
kann nicht sagen was ich nur meine) a connotation of meinen as "to make
mine," a verbalization of the possessive pronoun mein. But that makes
the innocuous pronouncement about the philosopher who, in humble
self-effacement, has to progress beyond his private opinion, into a very
odd sentence indeed: "Ich kann nicht sagen was ich (nur) meine" then
means "I cannot say what I make mine" or, since to think is to make
mine, "I cannot say what I think," and, since to think is fully contained in
and defined by the I, since Hegel's ego cogto defines itself as mere ego,
rvhat the sentence actually says is "I cannot say In-a disturbing proposition in Hegel's own terms since the very possibility of thought depends
on the possibility of saying "I."
Lest this itinerary by way of the signifier meinen appear too arbitrary
to be taken seriously, the sequel to the passage makes explicit what one
can already choose to hear in the original sentence. Hegel goes on to
discuss the logical difficulty inherent in the deictic or demonstrative
function of language, in the paradox that the most particular of designations such as "now," "here," or "this" are also the most powerful
agents of generalization, the cornerstones of this monument of generality that is language-a paradox perhaps inherent in the Greek word
dpiktik-os, which means "to point to" as rvell as "to prove" (as in the French

Critical Inqz~iy

Summer 1982


word dimontrer). If this is so for adverbs or pronouns of time and place, it

is even more so for the most personal of personal pronouns, the word
"I" itself. "All other humans have in common with me to be I, as all my
feelings, representations, etc., have in common with each other to be
distinctively my own." The word "I" is the most specifically deictic, selfpointing of words, yet it is also "the most entirely abstract generality."
Hegel can therefore write the following quite astonishing sentence:
"When I say 'I,' I mean myself as this I at the exclusion of all others; but
what I say, I, is precisely anyone; any I , as that ~vhichexcludes all others
from itself [ebenso, wenn ich sage: 'Ich,' meine ich mich als diesen alle
anderen Ausschliessenden; aber was ich sage, Ich, ist eben jeder]" (Enz.
I, p. 74, par. 20). In this sentence, the otherness of "jeder" does not designate in any way a specular subject, the mirror image of the I, but precisely that which cannot have a thing in common with myself; it should
be translated, in French, not as autrui, not even as chacun, but as n'importe
qui or even n'importe quoi. T h e contradiction between "sagen" and
"meinen," between "to say" and "to mean," between dire and uouloir dire
is an explicitation of the previous sentence "Ich kann nicht sagen was ich
(nur) meine" and a confirmation that it also has to be read, next to its
ordinary meaning, in the sense of "I cannot say I."
Thus, at the very onset of the entire system, in the preliminary
consideration of the science of logic, an inescapable obstacle threatens
the entire construction that follows. The philosophical I is not only selfeffacing, as Aristotle demanded, in the sense of being humble and inconspicuous, it is also self-effacing in the much more radical sense that
the position of the I, which is the condition for thought, implies its
eradication, not, as in Fichte, as the symmetrical position of its negation
but as the undoing, the erasure of any relationship, logical or otherwise,
that could be conceived between what the I is and what it says it is. The
very enterprise of thought seems to be paralyzed from the start. It can
only get under way if the knowledge that renders it impossible, the
knowledge that the linguistic position of the I is only possible if the I
forgets what it is (namely, I), if this knowledge is itself forgotten.
The way in which the passage we are reading (par. 20 of the Encyclop~dia)forgets its own statement is by describing the predicament it states,
which is a logical difficulty devoid of any phenomenal or experiential
dimension, as if it were an event in time, a narrative, or a history. At the
beginning of the paragraph, after having apodictically asserted that the
act of thought predicates generality, Hegel adds, as if it were a word of
caution, that these assertions cannot, at this point, be proven. We should
nevertheless not consider them, he says, as his own opinions (me@
iweinungen) but should take them to be facts. We can verify these facts by
way of the experience of our own thought, by testing them, trying them
out upon ourselves. But this experimentation is only accessible to those
"who have acquired a certain power of attention and abstraction," that is


Paul de Man

Hegel's Aesthetics

to say, who are capable of thought. T h e proof of thought is possible only

if we postulate that what has to be proven (namely, that thought is
possible) is indeed the case. T h e figure of this circularity is time.
Thought is proleptic: it projects the hypothesis of its possibility into a
future, in the hyperbolic expectation that the process that made thought
possible will eventually catch u p \vith this projection. T h e hyperbolic I
projects itself as thought in the hope of re-cognizing itself \vhen it rvill
have r u n its course. This is rvhy thought (denken) is ultimately called by
Hegel Erkunntnzs (rvhich implies recognition) and is considered to be
superior to knowledge (ulzssen). At the end of the gradual progression of
its own functioning, as it moves from perception to representation and
finally to thought, the intellect rvill refind and recognize itself. A great
deal is at stake in this anagnorisis \vhich constitutes the plot and the
suspense of Hegel's history of the mind. For if "the action of the intellect
as mind is called recognition" in an all-inclusive sense, and if the mind
has invested, so to speak, all its chances in this future possibility, then it
matters greatly \vhether o r not there will be something there to be recognized rvhen the time comes. "The principal question for modern
times depends on this," says Hegel, "namely, \vhether a genuine recognition, that is, the recognition of the truth, is possible" (Enz. 111, p.
242, par. 445). T h e truth is all around us; for Hegel \vho, in this respect,
is as much of an empiricist as Locke o r Hume, the truth is what happens,
but how can we be certain to recognize the truth \vhen it occurs? T h e
mind has to recognize, at the end of its trajectory-in this case, at the end
of the text-what was posited at the beginning. It has to recognize itself
as itself, that is to say, as I. But how are rve to recognize what will necessarily be erased and forgotten, since "I" is, per definition, \vhat I can
never say?
One understands the necessity for the mind to shelter itself from
self-erasure, to resist it rvith all the porvers of the intellect. This resistance
takes a multitude of forms, among which the aesthetic is not the least
efficacious. For it is not difficult to see that the problem can be recast in
terms of the distinctiveness between sign and symbol. As \ve saw, the I, in
its freedom from sensory determination, is originally similar to the sign.
Since, howeker, it states itself as \vhat it is not, it represents a determined
relationship to the \vorld that is in fact arbitrary, that is to say, it states
itself as symbol. T o the extent that the I points to itself, it is a sign, but to
the extent that it speaks of anything but itself, it is a symbol. T h e relationship between sign and symbol, however, is one of mutual obliteration; hence the temptation td confuse and to forget the distinction between them. T h e temptation is so strong that Hegel himself, rvho knows
the necessity for this distinction with all possible clarity, cannot resist it
and falls back into the confusion he has denounced, offering a theory of
art as symbol which, except for being somewhat halfhearted, is quite
traditional. But this does not prevent the symbol from being, in Hegel's

Critical Inquiry

Summer 19672


own terms, an ideological and not a theoretical construct, a defense

against the logical necessity inherent in a theoretical disclosure.
This ideology of the symbol is very familiar to us in the commonplaces of our own historical discourse on literature. It dominates, for
example, the discussion of Romanticism in its relation to its neoclassical
antecedents as well as to its heritage in modernity. It determines the
polarities that shape the value judgments implicated in these discussions:
such familiar oppositions as those between nature and art, the organic
and the mechanical, pastoral and epic, symbol and allegory. These
categories are susceptible to infinite refinement, and their interplay can
undergo numberless combinations, transformations, negations, and expansions. The commanding metaphor that organizes this entire system
is that of interiorization, the understanding of aesthetic beauty as the
external manifestation of an ideal content which is itself an interiorized
experience, the recollected emotion of a bygone perception. The sensory
manifestation (sinnlzches Scheinen) of art and literature is the outside of an
inner content which is itself an outer event or entity that has been internalized. The dialectics of internalization make up a rhetorical model
powerful enough to overcome national and other empirical differences
between the various European traditions. Attempts, for instance, to
mediate between Hegel and English Romantics such as Wordsworth,
Coleridge, and Keats often turn around the distinctive topoi of internalization: secularized versions of the Fall and the Redemption of man
as aprocess of consciousness, for example, or the subjectivism associated,
at least since Kant, with the problematics of the sublime. In all these
instances, Hegel can be invoked as the philosophical counterpart of what
occurs with greater delicacy in the figural inventions of the poets. For
Hegel is indeed, from the relatively early Phenomenology to the late
Aestj~etics,prominently the theoretician of internalization, of Er-mnerung
as the ground of the aesthetic as well as of the historical consciousness.
Ennnerung, recollection as the inner gathering and preserving of experience, brings history and beauty together in the coherence of the system.
It is also an integral part of the ideology of the symbol which Hegel both
espouses and undoes. The question remains, however, whether the external manifestation of the idea, when it occurs in the sequential development of Hegel's thought, indeed occurs in the mode of recollection, as
a dialectic of inside and outside susceptible to being understood and
articulated. Where is it, in the Hegelian system, that it can be said that
the intellect, the mind, or the idea leaves a material trace upon the world,
and how does this sensory appearance take place?
The answer takes a hint from the same section (p. 271, par. 458)
near the end of the Encyclopedia in a discussion on the structure of the
sign, with which we began. Having stated the necessity to distinguish
between sign and symbol and alluded to the universal tendency to conflate one with the other, Hegel next makes reference to a faculty of the


Paul de Man

Hegel's Aesthetics

mind which he calls Gedachtnis and which "in ordinary [as opposed to
philosophical] discourse is often conf~isedwith recollection [Em'nnerung]
as well as with representation and imaginationH-just as sign and symbol
are often used interchangeably in such modes of ordinary parlance as
literary commentary o r literary criticism (Enz. 111, p. 271, par. 458).
Gedachtnis, of course, means memory in the sense that one says of someone that he has a good memory but not that he has a good remembrance
o r a good recollection. One says, in German, "sie o r e r hat ein gutes
Gedachtnis," and not, in that same sense, "eine gute Erinnerung." T h e
French mdmoire, as in Henri Bergson's title Matibre et Mtmoire, is more
ambivalent, but a similar distinction occurs between mtmoire and souzjenir;
un ban souvenir is not the same asune bonne mtmoire. (Proust struggles with
the distinction in his attempts to distinguish between mdmoire
volontaire-\vhich is like Gedachtnis-and mdmoire involontaire, \vhich is
rather like Erinnerung.) T h e surprise, in Hegel, is that the progression
from perception to thought depends crucially on the mental faculty of
memorization. It is Gedachtnis, as a subspecies of representation, \vhich
makes the transition to the highest capacity of the thinking intellect: the
echo of denken preserved in the rvord "G~dachtnis" suggests the close
proximity of thought to the capacity of remembering by memorization.
In order to understand thought, we must first understand memory, but,
says Hegel, "to understand the place and the meaning of memory in the
systematic study of the intellect and in its organic connection with
thought is one of the most readily ignored and most difficult points in
the study of the mind" (Enz. 111, p. 283, par. 464). Memorization has to
be sharply distinguished from recollection and from imagination. It is
entirely devoid of images (bildlos), and Hegel speaks derisively of pedagogical attempts to teach children how to read and write by having them
associate pictures \vith specific words. But it is not devoid of materiality
altogether. We can learn by heart only when all meaning is forgotten and
words read as if they were a mere list of names. "It is well kno~vn,"says
Hegel, "that one knows a text by heart [or by rote] only rvhen rve no
longer associate any meaning \vith the \vords; in reciting rvhat one thus
knot\ s by heart one necessarily drops all accentuation."
We are far removed, in this section of the Encyclopedia on memory,
from the mnemotechnic icons described by Frances Yates in The Art oJ
M~moryand much closer to Augustine's advice about ho\v to remember
and to psalmodize Scripture. Memory, for Hegel, is the learning by rote
of namps, or of words considered as names, and it can therefore not be
separated from the notation, the inscription, o r the \vriting down of
these names. In order to remember, one is forced to write down \vhat
one is likely to forget. T h e idea, in other rvords, makes its sensory appearance, in Hegel, as the material inscription of names. Thought is
entirely dependent on a mental faculty that is mechanical through and
through, as remote as can be from the sounds and the images of the

Critical Inquiry

Summer 1982


imagination o r from the dark mine of recollection, which lies beyond the
reach of words and of thought.
The synthesis between name and meaning that characterizes memory is an "empty link [das leere Band]" and thus entirely unlike the mutual
complementarity and interpenetration of form and content that
characterizes symbolic art (Enz. III, p. 28 1 , par. 463). It is not aesthetic in
the ordinary or in the classically Hegelian sense of the word. However,
since the synthesis of memory is the only activity of the intellect to occur
as sensory manifestation of an idea, memory is a truth of which the
aesthetic is the defensive, ideological, and censored translation. In order
to have memory one has to be able to forget remembrance and reach the
machinelike exteriority, the outrvard turn, which is retained in the German word for learning by heart, aus-mendzg lernen. "It is in names that we
think," says Hegel (Enz. III, p. 278, par. 462); names, however, are the
hieroglyphic, silent inscriptions in which the relationship between what
one perceives and what one understands, between the written letter and
the meaning, is only exterior and superficial. "Visible, written language,"
says Hegel, "relates to voice, to sounded language, only as a sign" (Enz.
III, p. 277, par. 459). In memorization, in thought and, by extension, in
the sensory manifestation of thought as an "art" of writing, "we are
dealing only with signs [wir haben es uberhaupt nur mit Zeichen zu
tun]." Memory effaces remembrance (or recollection) just as the I effaces
itself. The faculty that enables thought to exist also makes its preservation impossible. The art, the technb, of writing which cannot be separated
from thought and from memorization can only be preserved in the
figural mode of the symbol, the very mode it has to do away with if it is to
occur at all.
No wonder, then, that Hegel's Aesthetzcs turns out to be a double and
possibly duplicitous text. Dedicated to the preservation and the
monumentalization of classical art, it also contains all the elements which
make such a preservation impossible from the start. Theoretical reasons
prevent the convergence of the apparently historical and the properly
theoretical components of the work. This results in the enigmatic statements that have troubled Hegel's readers, such as the assertion that art is
for us a thing of the past. This has usually been interpreted and
criticized or, in some rare instances, praised as a historical diagnosis
disproven or borne out by actual history. We can nob7assert that the two
statements "art is for us a thing of the past" and "the beautiful is the
sensory manifestation of the idea7'are in fact one and the same. T o the
extent that the paradigm for art is thought rather than perception, the
sign rather than the symbol, writing rather than painting or music, it will
also be memorization rather than recollection. As such, it belongs indeed
to a past which, in Proust's words, could never be recaptured, retrouv6.
Art is "of the past" in a radical sense, in that, like memorization, it leaves
the interiorization of experience forever behind. It is of the past to the


Paul de Man

Hegel's Aesthetics

extent that it materially inscribes, and thus forever forgets, its ideal
content. T h e reconciliation of the two main theses of the Aesthetics occurs
at the expense of the aesthetic as a stable philosophical category. What
the Aestltetics calls the beautiful turns out to be, also, something very
remote from what we associate ~viththe suggestiveness of symbolic form.
Before dismissing it as simply, o r merely, ugly, one should perhaps
bear in mind what Proust has to say in Smann's Way about symbols which,
unlike metaphors, d o not mean what they say. "Such symbols are not
represented symbolically [le symbole (n'est) pas represente comme un
symbole] since the symbolized thought is not expressed but the symbol
represented as real, as actually inflicted o r materially handled [puisque la
pensee symbolisee (n'est) pas exprimee, mais (le symbole represente)
comme re'el, comme effectivement subi ou materiellement manie]." This
symbol that is not symbolic is much like the theory of the aesthetic which,
in Hegel, is no longer aesthetic, like the subject \vhich has to say "I" but
can never say it, the sign rvhich can only survive as a symbol, a consciousness (or subconsciousness) which has to become like the machine of
mechanical memory, a representation which is in fact merely a n inscription o r a system of notation. Such signs, says Proust, may have a special
beauty, "une etrangete saissante," which will be appreciated only much
later, at a degree of aesthetic and theoretical remove so advanced as to be
alrvays "of the past" and not o u r orvn.
T h e passage in Proust from which I am quoting deals with Giotto's
allegories of the Vices and of the Virtues in the frescoes of the Arena at
Padua. If we then wonder, as we should, where it is, in Hegel's Aesth~tirs,
that the theory of the sign manifests itself materially, rve rvould have to
look for sections o r art f'orms ~vhichHegel explicitly says are not aesthetic o r beautiful. Such is the case for the brief chapter, at the end of the
section on symbolic art, on allegory. Allegory, in conforming with the
received opinion of Hegel's day which was, not unproblematically, associated with Goethe, is dismissed as barren and ugly (kahl). It belongs to
the belated, self-consciously symbolic modes (Hegel calls them "comparative") rvhich, "instead of presenting things o r meanings according to
their adequate reality, only present them as an image o r a parable" and
G(ittung~n1"(APs, p.
\vhicll are therefore "inferior genres [unt~l-g~ordn~te
488). Before allowing Hegel's dismissal to dismiss the problem, one
should remember that, in a truly dialectical system such as Hegel's, what
appears to be inferior and enslaved (untergeol-dnet) may \veil turn out to
be the master. Compared to the depth and beauty of recollection, memory appears as a mere tool, a mere slave of the intellect, just as the sign
appears shallow and mechanical compared to the aesthetic aura of the
symbol o r just as prose appears like piece~vorklabor next to the noble
craft of poetry-just as, \ve may add, neglected corners in the Hegelian
canon are perhaps masterful articulations rather than the all too visible

Critical Inquiry

Summer 1982


synthetic judgments that are being remembered as the commonplaces of

nineteenth-century history.
The section on allegory, apparently so conventional and disappointing, may well be a case in point. Allegory, says Hegel, is primarily
a personification produced for the sake of clarity, and, as such, it always
involves a subject, an 1. But this 1, nhich is the subject of allegory, is
oddly constructed. Since it has to be devoid of any individuality or
human specificity, it has to be as general as can be, so much so that it can
be called a "grammatical subject." Allegories are allegories of the most
distinctively linguistic (as opposed to phenomenal) of categories, namely
grammar. On the other hand, allegory fails entirely in its purpose if one
is unable to recognize the abstraction that is being allegorized; it has to
be, in Hegel's LtTords, "erkennbar." Therefore, specific predicates of the
grammatical subject will bane to be enunciated, despite the fact that these
specifications are bound to conflict ~ t ~ i the
t h generality, the pure grammaticality, of the "I": Our reading of paragraph 20 of the Encycloped~a
threatens the stability of the predicative sentence "I am I." What the
allegory narrates is, therefore, in Hegel's own words, "the separation or
disarticulation of subject from predicate [die Trennung von Subjekt und
Pradikat]." For discourse to be meaningful, this separation has to take
place, yet it is incompatible nith the necessary generality of all meaning.
Allegory functions, categorically and logically, like the defective cornerstone of the entire system.
We would have to conclude that Hegel's philosophy which, like his
Aesthetzcr, is a philosophy of history (and of aesthetics) as ~t.ellas a history
of philosophy (and of aesthetics)-and the Hegelian corpus indeed contains texts that bear these two symmetrical titles-is in fact an allegory of
the disjunction bet~t.eenphilosophy and history, or, in our more restricted concern, between literature and aesthetics, or, more narrowly
still, betneen literary experience and literary theory. The reasons for
this disjunction, which it is eclually vain to deplore or to praise, are not
themselves historical or recoverable by ways of history. T o the extent
that they are inherent in language, in the necessity, LtThich is also an
impossibility, to connect the subject ~t.ithits predicates or the sign nith its
symbolic significations, the disjunction will alnays, as it did in Hegel,
manifest itself as soon as experience shades into thought, history into
theory. No nonder that literary theory has such a bad name, all the more
so since the emergence of thought and of theory is not something that
our own thought can hope to prevent or to control.